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Student Showcase Archive
Show RCA 2019

Rhiarna Dhaliwal

Show RCA work

Major project:


For an iPhone to vibrate, for AirPods to play music and for wind turbines to generate power they need powerful magnets.

Neodymium is the essential rare-earth element behind the high-performance magnets found in every hard disk drive, wind turbine generator and electric vehicle motor.

Rare-earth elements (RREs) have diverse applications that touch many aspects of modern life and with the rapid rise in demand for electronics and the innovation involved with 'the internet of things' – there will undoubtedly be a rise in the mining of RREs.

But at what price do we pay for this?

High-grade deposits are mined in the infamous Bayan Obo Mine in China's Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region, where much of the world’s RRE production is taking place. Relaxed labour laws and low environmental concerns have enabled China to dominate the global market and become the main exporter to the rest of the world.

The Weikung Tailings Dam, located 120km south of the Bayan Obo mine, is continually filled with radioactive slurry from the rare earth refinery plants. The dam has been growing since the 1950s, contaminating nearby land and the Yellow River at a rate of 300 meters per year.

Rare earths are so thoroughly embedded in modern life, it is certain that mining will continue to expand. The consequences of this will be the reconfiguration of the land into a toxic leftover of global capitalism.

Is the sacrifice of local environments and livelihoods a fair price to pay for the proliferation of clean energy technologies?

There’s always a threshold. Everything is in the environment at some level. Gamma radiation is no different to this. We are all exposed to background radiation levels, whether it originates from cosmic rays or from nuclear weapons testing. Radioresistance is high in many organisms. The study of animals and plants around the Chernobyl exclusion zone reiterate this with the unexpected survival of many species.

Each agent native to the site has a radiation dose that it can safely withstand. These temporal boundaries create safe zones for each agent to safely inhabit. Spatialising the radiation threshold levels allows us to reimagine the toxic land as a potential site for safe reoccupation.

If human-caused radiation must exist, what kind of radiation levels can we and non-humans live with?

The project has the ambition to construct a future scenario – the post-human reoccupation of the polluted land by native non-humans and humans. I aim to make an argument for the notion of a 'toxic commons' – a system where multiple agents are able to live symbiotically with radiation.

My design interventions focus on three strategic areas: along the routes of migratory animals, within the grasslands and the pastures of the Mongolian Steppe.

Through design, I aim to explore how life can thrive.

The system begins with the collection of real-time data on radiation levels. The production of data can be used as a tool to gather unprecedented levels of information in order to begin to understand the layered, complicated injustices.

Before accountability on environmental destruction can be achieved, the complex narratives of the site need to be understood.

Sensors and small scale interventions are connected via a mesh network in order to send and receive data to create a continuous flow. The roll of each intervention is to provide the necessities for humans and non-humans to survive: clean water, irrigation, bird habitations and territorial scent marking.

As data is received by the interventions, they are strategically positioned in relation to the radiation levels detected. As gamma radiation levels increase, the interventions will be positioned within a new safe zone to create an exchange of data and landscape transformation.

The project is not about remediating the landscape or mitigating the effects of toxicity, instead the system of architecture aims to rethink how we can live symbiotically with radiation within safe means. The act of data collection allows the history of violence to not be wiped, while aiding the knowledge and awareness of environmental injustice.

Even within a polluted landscape, life can still continue to thrive. It is just a question of who these agents are and what threshold levels they can survive in.


  • Previous degrees

  • B.Arch (Hons) Architecture, University of Nottingham, 2015
  • Experiences

  • Architectural assistant, RCKa, London, 2016-17; Architectural assistant, BDP, Birmingham, 2015-16
Royal College of Art